Why Pax Dickinson Matters

Mock their JUST ONE CHARTs all you want: news website Business Insider has raised $18.6 million in funding from powerful tech investors like Marc Andreessen, Jeff Bezos, Kevin Ryan, Institutional Venture Partners, and even Facebook underwriter Allen & Company. (It’s also omnipresent in your search engine results. Go ahead, Google something... businessy.) After the latest $5 million cash injection, founder, editor and CEO Henry Blodget said its goal was to “become the best digital business publication on the planet.”

And this was his CTO—the man he chose put in charge of hiring tech talent for the fast-growing company:

Executive suites are full of smug assholes. If Dickinson worked on Wall Street, the episode might have started with a Dealbreaker headline and ended with a slap on the wrist (save for concerns about a discrimination or harassment suit). Maybe Snapchat would have been his salvation. He’s even managed to semi-successfully rebrand his hate speech as performance art.

Dickinson’s noxious tweets, however, surfaced in the middle of a heated debate about the lack of women and people of color in tech, and the degree to which the tech sector is responsible for increasing inequality in the midst of an ever-widening income gap. In less than 24 hours, he was out of a job.

Shaming a misogynist and bigot into unemployment is not the goal. And it's not enough.

Nobody believes the myth that Silicon Valley is a meritocracy, except maybe its gatekeepers. It’s like some relic from A Time Before Brogrammers that they keep trying to retrofit onto today’s rockstar entrepreneurs—even as “party rounds” and pools of dumb money prop up products that often just serve themselves.

There are persistent and undeniable race and gender gaps in funding and hiring in the tech sector. But the priesthood has until very recently insisted their boy’s club was open to any innovative hustler.

For 20 years, venture capitalist Marc Andreessen told TechCrunch in April, Silicon Valley was so certain that it ran as a “straight meritocracy” that managers were told, "'Be gender blind.’ It’s not important; in fact, it’s not to be discussed.”

The same blinders were applied to race. “I’ve certainly heard my share of sexist and racist jokes in Silicon Valley, but hardly enough to believe that people like Michael Arrington or Paul Graham are lying when they say that they are colorblind,” author Eric Ries, the man credited with the “lean startup” method, wrote on TechCrunch.

In the past month, we’ve seen more clearly than ever what that see-no-evil attitude has wrought: a culture that laughs at sexist “jokes” and turns a blind eye to misogyny and racism, even when it’s been tweeting at you for years.

Pax Dickinson is just one attention-seeking troll in an internet full of them. But his online presence offers a glimpse at what can fester under the banner of meritocracy and “culture fit.”

This weekend, the New York Times’ published an excellent investigation into Harvard Business School, which featured the cofounder of Highland Capital Partners advising female MBAs not to become VCs because male partners did not want them there (the same firm, mind you, which said that Silicon Valley was "totally" a natural meritocracy). In the article, HBS dean Nitin Nohria said the phrase that guided his plan to dismantle institutional gender bias was: “Sunshine is the best disinfectant.”

Removing Dickinson from his position doesn’t “disinfect” Business Insider, or the tech industry at large. Light needs to be shone on the systems and structures into which Dickinson fits—like the institutional permissiveness of a company that purports to “value diversity.” Blodget interacted with Dickinson on Twitter, so presumably he saw his executive’s digital bile, which openly flouted the social media policy Blodget himself outlined. One editor opted to block Dickinson entirely: See no evil, hear no evil, RT no evil.

(Then again, maybe Dickinson's views do reflect his employer. It was Blodget who wondered if women were too lazy to succeed at Goldman Sachs.)

Perhaps they just rolled their eyes when he tweeted this:

That's the status update that finally got Dickinson the attention he craved. It’s a reaction to TechCrunch’s apology for showcasing a “joke” app called “Titstare” at its biannual conference. The onstage demo was exactly as gross as it sounds.

The sad part isn’t so much that conference organizers failed to screen presenters, but that the would-be comedians behind Titstare read the room at the San Francisco Design Center and thought: I know what will make this crowd laugh. And they were right: Titstare got “very loud applause.” (If you treat startups like rockstars, they will behave in kind, GigaOm reporter Stacy Higginbotham pointed out.)

In other words: The problem wasn’t two “bad apples," but a crowd so homogenous that they thought that shit would fly. This is the fruit of the “meritocracy,” where entrepreneurs and engineers are supposedly “judged by what they achieve.”

It’s not quite that the dream of meritocracy has failed, though. The Kapor Center for Social Impact reports:

At both Latino2 and the Platform Summit, someone proudly described Y Combinator and Kleiner Perkins [a venture capital firm] as “colorblind”, “gender blind” and/or “agnostic on race and gender.” In each instance, one of us took on the speaker, pointing out that aspiration and actuality are different. To ignore biases, however subtle or unintentional, is to allow them to flourish.

Institutional biases are often unconscious. And the dissonance between aspiration and execution in the tech sector is glaring.

After I wrote a post telling Paul Graham that his priorities were out of whack for continuing to correlate having a “strong foreign accents” with being a bad CEO, he asked me: “How do you square your conclusion that I'm xenophobic with the fact that I was the one who first proposed the Founder Visa?”

Well. I never called Graham a xenophobe. But I do think Graham’s altruistic intentions have blinded him to his own bias—and the material effect it has on his industry. He claims he has “empirical evidence”—as always, the last refuge of people struggling to justify their prejudice—that the inability to understand CEOs with strong foreign accents will tank their business, but he won’t say how many of Y Combinator’s 564 startups had foreign-born CEOs. The data itself is self-selective: Y Combinator would already have to have let the company into the gate.

Parroting such claims, especially when startups have bigger problems, encourages more bias. When you tell the tech world that your organization looks for college dropouts who look like Mark Zuckerberg, that makes it easier for Pax Dickinson to tweet with impunity about "blocking" women.

And this attitude is important beyond the tech world, partly because there is no “beyond the tech world” anymore. People like Graham and Blodget and investors like Andreessen Horowitz and Highland Capital Partners help decide which apps or services get attention and funding. They will play a role in what technology you use and by extension how culture is shaped. They are building their values into the infrastructure of your life.

Imagine if the culture of the technology industry was different, and that instead of firing Dickinson, Business Insider had, at some point over years of his vile tweets, made it clear that the company values diversity and checked to see whether that was reflected in his role as a manager and executive with hiring power. Instead, we have another aggrieved tech bro dismissing all the haters, confusing freedom of speech with freedom from consequences as a top executive of a major brand.

Shed no tears for Dickinson, though. He’s already found a way to cash in on his bad brogrammer rep with a new ephemeral messaging startup, in the works before he got canned, called Glimpse that protects images users send from screenshots. “Of course, we take Bitcoin,” the site advertises.

Why Pax Dickinson Matters

Why Pax Dickinson Matters

Why Pax Dickinson Matters

His cofounder, whose name is now removed from the site, is Elissa Shevinsky. After the Titstare controversy, Shevinsky wrote an article, which was reposted on Business Insider, about why she stopped “defending sexism” in tech.

Let's be clear—sexism isn't owned by startup bros from frats out of MIT. I've been hit on by VCs (one messaged me on Gchat to ask if my OKCupid profile was for research) and another introduced himself at the TC August Capital party by stating that he'd like to make out with me. (To be fair, my badge read "CEO of MakeOut Labs," but that introduction was brazen). I've been sympathetic to these bad actors. With so few women around, it's almost reasonable that they can't get past seeing me as one of their only romantic prospects. And yet, we find ourselves wondering why more women don't choose to be part of this world.

And yet.

Update: Dickinson has written a post for Medium defending his tweets, including the tweet with the word "niggers" and the tweet saying "managers spend as much time worrying about how to hire talented female developers as they do worrying about how to hire a unicorn":

I’m glad to be able to tell you I’m not racist or misogynistic or any of these labels that are being put on me. I’m glad to have this chance to reply, “But that was a funny and relevant satirically anti-racist Mel Gibson joke 3 1/2 years ago” and exclaim, “I meant that unicorns are mythically rare but also highly valued and impossible to catch!”

Earlier today in a since deleted tweet, his cofounder Elissa Shevinsky offered TechCrunch a post about Glimpse, but I guess the formal announcement has found a port in the storm in Medium instead.

To contact the author of this post, please email nitasha@gawker.com.

[Photo via Twitter]